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Hell Gate Finally Gets NYPD to Explain Why They Haven’t Published Legally-Required Clearance Rates

It was like pulling teeth, and their statement raises even more questions.

(Hell Gate)

After a week of pestering from Hell Gate, the Adams administration says that it will resume complying with the City law that requires the NYPD to publish its clearance rates on a quarterly basis. 

In a statement sent Tuesday evening and attributed only to an anonymous spokesperson, the NYPD announced that it would once again publish quarterly clearance reports, beginning with a report covering the past five quarters to be released this week.

Clearance rates—broadly thought of as the number of reported crimes police "solve" or for which they make an arrest—are a statistic whose interpretation is often debated by public safety experts. But they are a useful indicator, said Liz Glazer, the former head of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, which can shine a light on two important factors in reducing crime: "Solving crimes comes from two things," Glazer said. "Police activity—how much police are devoting resources to solving crimes—and neighborhood cooperation—do you have the trust and cooperation of residents? Are they willing to tell you what they saw?" 

When clearance rates vary dramatically from one borough to another, or from one precinct to another, it can point to bigger problems in how police are operating. It was precisely the discrepancy between wealthy neighborhoods with high clearance rates and poorer neighborhoods with worse clearance rates that motivated then-City Councilmember Ritchie Torres to write the law that the NYPD has been flouting, back in 2017. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," Torres said at the time, "and this bill will shine a spotlight on the disparities in solving crimes in order to spur change.” 

"Reporting bills like this are a powerful and important accountability tool," Helen Rosenthal, a former Manhattan City Councilmember who also sponsored the law, told Hell Gate this week. "How else do you know what's going on inside an agency?"

The NYPD blamed its failure to publish the mandated reports on its belated adoption of the federally mandated National Incident Based Reporting System. "This change required a complete realignment in how the agency collects and reports crime data to the FBI and NYS Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS)," the anonymous spokesperson wrote. "NIBRS calculates clearance rates much differently than what is called for in the City Council law that was enacted in 2017."

The NYPD will resolve this dilemma going forward, the spokesperson wrote, by publishing a "new, all-encompassing report on the agency’s clearance rates (containing both sets of calculations with detailed footnotes to explain to the public) on a quarterly basis per the Council’s law."

Getting to this answer was a somewhat winding path. The NYPD stopped updating its clearance reports early last year, without any public explanation. In October, reporter Joy Bergmann asked the NYPD's 86-member public information office where the missing reports were. She did not receive a response. On May 20, Hell Gate posed the same question, and also received no response. The next day, we asked again, and this time the NYPD press office responded, pointing us to the website that was missing the information. We wrote back, noting that our question remained unanswered, and did not receive a response. On May 23, we wrote again, this time copying Tarik Shepard, the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, as well as a mayoral press officer, advising them that we were about to publish a story about the missing reports, and asking them to respond. Neither the bountifully staffed press office, nor Shepard, nor the Mayor's Office responded. We published our story.

This Tuesday, Hell Gate attended the Mayor's weekly off-topic press conference. A reporter for another publication suggested he would give us five dollars if the mayor's press team called on us to ask a question. We diligently raised our hands in full view of the press team running the press conference for more than an hour, but they didn't allow us to ask a question. At the end of the press conference, as the mayor's exit music swelled in the speakers, we forced the issue, and posed the question to the mayor: Why, under his administration, had the NYPD stopped complying with the legal requirement to publish quarterly clearance reports? "I was briefed on that this morning," the mayor answered. "I'm not sure. If you give me to this afternoon, I will find out. If we're required to do it, we have to do it." 

The reporter who had offered us five dollars declined to pay because technically we had not been called on. 

After a few more emails with the police and the Mayor's office, the NYPD gave its statement to Hell Gate at 6:20 p.m.

"Clearance rates are significantly scrutinized; and given the dramatic difference in how the clearance rate is calculated under the City Council law; and under NIBRS, the agency was concerned about publicly reporting one set of clearance rates per the Council’s formula; and a different set to the FBI & DCJS. This can understandably lead to confusion by the public as well as to the entities we are mandated to report our data to," the statement read, in part. 

This commits the NYPD to coming back into compliance with the law, but it leaves a number of questions unanswered: How does the adoption of NIBRS reporting actually complicate clearance rate calculations? As Jeff Asher, a data analyst who works on criminal justice statistics, told Hell Gate, NIBRS doesn't have a different standard for reporting clearance rates than the system it replaces—its primary innovation is simply that it collects more data for more categories of crime. 

We posed this question to the NYPD and City Hall, and did not get a response. We also asked more basic questions: If the NYPD was worried about confusing state and federal authorities with two sets of numbers, couldn't that have been resolved with an email? If it was worried about confusing the public, was the solution really to stop publishing any numbers at all, in violation of the law? 

And finally, if the NYPD certified its NIBRS reporting in September, why is it only publishing its joint report this week after Hell Gate started raising a ruckus about it?

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